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Conner Strong, other firms propose $245 million move to Camden

Three prominent South Jersey firms planning move to Camden

Insurance brokerage firm Conner Strong & Buckelew, which is led by South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III, has applied for millions in state tax credits in order to move from Marlton to the Camden waterfront, along with the Michaels Organization and NFI, two other South Jersey corporations.

The three companies are collectively requesting $245 million in tax incentives to build an 18-story office tower, along with an outdoor piazza overlooking the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline across the water. The piazza would have space to hold up to 1,000 people, according to a news release from the firms.

The state Economic Development Authority will determine whether to approve the plans at its regular meeting next week.

The proposal has been in the works for more than a year. In September 2015, when developer Liberty Property Trust announced plans to transform the city's waterfront into a corridor of offices, shops, a hotel, housing, restaurants and walkways, Norcross indicated that he would move his firm there. The Michaels Organization, a Cherry Hill-based housing developer that has done work in Camden, and Marlton-based supply firm NFI both said they would also join the project.

The firms bought the Ferry Terminal Building on the waterfront last year and may invest additional millions in building apartments and a hotel there, according to the joint news release.

"We are incredibly excited about the future of Camden and about the future of our organization being headquartered there," Michaels Organization president John J. O'Donnell said in the statement. "This move will enable us to offer our growing workforce a world-class, state-of-the art headquarters location in a city that is once again poised for greatness."

The 2013 passage of the Grow New Jersey law, championed by Norcross' brother U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross when he was a state senator, has led to an explosion of business development in Camden, and more than $1.5 billion in tax credits promised to companies who are now moving to the city. The law, which rewards companies that invest in struggling cities with tax incentives through the EDA, has attracted Subaru of America, Holtec, Lockheed Martin, and the 76ers, all of whom are building new facilities in Camden. Last month the American Water Co. broke ground on a new headquarters planned for the waterfront.

The tax credits, spread out over 10 years, are to be awarded after the companies complete the building projects. The credits also are contingent on the companies' staying in Camden for a set period, and retaining a certain number of employees there.

State and city leaders say the developments will lead to other businesses and jobs and a more robust local economy, as thousands of employees will now be traveling to Camden every day. But critics have said the deals are too generous because they largely involve the relocation of high-paying jobs from elsewhere in South Jersey, with no strategies aimed at addressing Camden's chronic unemployment. Most of the companies moving in will have few jobs to offer the city's long-term unemployed, and the deals will allow the companies to recoup building costs while paying little in property taxes.

Many of the companies, including Michaels and NFI, have long-standing personal and professional ties to Norcross, who is also the chairman of Cooper University Hospital. In the past, Norcross has said he felt it was important to demonstrate his personal commitment to the city's revitalization in order to create momentum.

"I look forward to not just being a cheerleader for Camden, but being a corporate resident," he said Friday.

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